20 years ago, the Aronoff Center helped launch downtown's revitalization

This month marks the Aronoff Center for the Arts’ 20th anniversary, with the celebration continuing throughout the year.

Festivities began on Oct. 10 with Center Stage at the Aronoff, a progressive party for the facility’s many donors and benefactors, and a follow-up party was held Oct. 11 for the Aronoff’s 800-plus volunteers. But an anniversary isn’t all they’re celebrating.
About 20 years ago, the area north of Fountain Square now known as the Backstage District was in severe decline — rents were falling, businesses were leaving and vacancies were rising. Fortunately, city leaders saw the need to revitalize the area, and one of the elements that spearheaded those efforts was creating a modern arts center, says David Ginsburg, CEO of Downtown Cincinnati Inc. (DCI).
David Ginsburg, DCI 
At that time, the State of Ohio was interested in building a performing arts center in Columbus — the Ohio Center for the Arts — but State Sen. Stan Aronoff made an aggressive effort to move the project to downtown Cincinnati. His plan won out, and the building was named the Aronoff Center for the Arts in his honor.
The Aronoff has helped bring together a diverse community during its 20 years, which is what the arts are all about. It became an anchor in the central business district and a magnet for attracting other developments.

Catalyst for development

Before construction of the Aronoff Center was completed, Saks Fifth Avenue considered leaving downtown. But when company officials visited Cincinnati and saw what the new arts center would be like and what it could do for downtown, they decided to keep the store where it was because their customers were also arts patrons.   
At about the same time, DCI was trying to attract new businesses to downtown. Even though Fountain Square wouldn’t look like it does now until 2005, Rock Bottom Brewery became the first anchor there, which eventually helped bring in other businesses and restaurants such as Graeter’s, Via Vite and Nada.
“We believe in Cincinnati and downtown and wanted to be a part of building confidence in the central business district and building Cincinnati’s reputation as a dining destination,” says David Falk, president of Boca Restaurant Group, which operates Nada within the Aronoff footprint and Boca and Sotto around the corner. “When we opened Nada in 2007, the downtown of today was just a dream.”

The Aronoff and the arts

Apart from New York City, the Aronoff Center is home to one of the largest Broadway Series in the country, with a subscriber base of about 16,000. It’s the current home of Cincinnati Ballet, which plans to move to Music Hall when renovations are finished there in order to be closer to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It’s also home to several other resident companies: Cincinnati Music Theatre, Cincinnati Playwrights Initiative, Contemporary Dance Theater, Exhale Dance Tribe and Mamluft&Co. Dance.
“Why we’re here and what we do is to entertain and inspire creativity and imagination,” says Todd Duesing, director of operations for Cincinnati Arts Association, which manages the Aronoff Center and Music Hall. “Our goal is so much more than economic development, but so many other things have happened in this area because of it.”
In 2008, CAA assisted the Cincinnati USA Convention and Visitors Bureau in making a bid for Cincinnati to host the World Choir Games, an international choral competition that’s been held in cities all over the world. Cincinnati won the bid and hosted the Games in 2012, including performances at the Aronoff Center and Music Hall.
“We welcomed the world to the stages here in Cincinnati and became a pinnacle for the arts in the city,” Duesing says. “We beat out countries from all over the world to showcase our city’s strongest assets and became representatives of what Cincinnati does best.”
That type of collaboration is unheard of in most cities, but it’s something that Cincinnati and the Aronoff Center can be proud of.

Downtown as a whole

The Aronoff Center isn’t a single destination attraction, Ginsburg says. There isn’t parking adjacent to the building or a hotel or in-house restaurant. And the facility was planned that way.
Back in the 1990s city and civic leaders wanted to improve the walkability of downtown, so streetscapes were improved and new lighting was added to make the area around Sixth and Walnut streets more inviting. If you pay attention as you walk into the Aronoff Center, the brick pattern that acts as a red carpet into the building continues inside — the building’s architect intentionally added this design to draw people in from the street.
The idea was to build the Aronoff Center and then augment it with private sector businesses to complement it. As a result, a vibrant entertainment district has emerged, with the arts center at its center.
Part of the Backstage District’s appeal is that its overall patron experience builds on that collaborative environment. You can grab a drink and an appetizer at Nada, catch a show at the Aronoff Center, then head to Nicholson’s for a late dinner or to the rooftop of 21c Museum Hotel for a nightcap. Out-of-towners staying at the 21c might not be in Cincinnati for the arts, but the odds of them taking in a show at the Aronoff or checking out the Contemporary Arts Center while here are pretty high.
“The building of the Aronoff really brought a renaissance to this area,” says Van Ackerman, director of marketing and public relations for CAA. “The example of building the Aronoff and the redevelopment that has happened since became a model for other neighborhoods, including Over-the-Rhine.”
Want to help the Aronoff celebrate its birthday? Keep tabs on its website for upcoming events and offers.

Read more articles by Caitlin Koenig.

Caitlin Koenig is a Cincinnati transplant and 2012 grad of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. She's the department editor for Soapbox Media and currently lives in Northside with her husband, Andrew, and their three furry children. Follow Caitlin on Twitter at @caite_13.  
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